In the century and a half that’s passed since Louisa May Alcott published Little Women, the book’s protagonists, the March sisters, have become beloved all over the world, with the story of their lives adapted into movies, plays, TV shows, and more. Like so many more modern entertainment sources, they’ve also launched many arguments among their fandom: Which March sister is the best? Did Amy go too far by burning Jo’s writing? Did Meg choose the easy way out by getting married?
With yet a new adaptation now in theaters, Polygon Little Women fans Karen Han, Emily Heller, Petrana Radulovic, Simone de Rochefort, and Jenna Stoeber convened to discuss their own connections to Little Women, adapting the book for 2019, and, of course, ’ships. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.
Karen Han: When did you first read Little Women? I think I read the book as a child, but I have no real memory of it.
Simone de Rochefort: I read it as a kid, but with a caveat: I didn’t realize there was a second book, Good Wives, and that they’re usually combined. So I read some kid version and thought it just ended there, and didn’t realize Beth died and everyone got married until I was a grown-ass adult.
Jenna Stoeber: Had you seen any of the movie adaptations? And did you think that was all fan fiction?
Simone: No, I’d just read the book that took out all the death and marriage.
Emily Heller: I didn’t read the book; I only watched the ’90s movie.
Petrana Radulovic: I read the Great Illustrated Classics version when I was in second grade, and the real deal once I was older and my reading comprehension had developed. And I read it over and over again, because I loved it. I’ve never seen the ’90s movie; I’ve only seen the really old-ass one with Elizabeth Taylor.
Jenna: Who did Elizabeth Taylor play?
Emily: Amy is the most dramatic one. It makes the most sense, actually.
Jenna: The ’90s one is a prime Christmas movie.
Emily: Tired: Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Wired: Little Women is a Christmas movie.
Karen: So what did you all think of Little Women when you first read or saw it?
Emily: We had a DVD of it that we watched all the time, so it’s been a part of my life since before I was consciously thinking about it. It holds the same sort of resonance for me as, say, Harry Potter or The Velveteen Rabbit. They’re things from my childhood that influenced me before I had a chance to think about what they meant.
Jenna: I had sort of the same thing. Little Women was so essential to my childhood that watching this new adaptation was kind of like a flashback. Being behind on lemons — “Ever so many lemons” — hearing that said out loud again made me 9 years old, in a nice way. Or having a chalkboard and dropping it in the snow and losing your arithmetic homework; that didn’t happen to me in my youth, but it felt like it had.
Petrana: It was definitely a very important book to me. It was the first big book I read on my own, besides Harry Potter. I remember my mom used to tell me that I was Jo and my sister was Amy, and we fought a lot when I was younger, for similar reasons.
Karen: That seems deliberately incendiary to say to your children.
Petrana: My sister never read the book, so she didn’t really care.
Karen: One of the big things about Little Women, akin to pretty much any fandom you get into when you’re a kid, is that people have really strong opinions about the characters. So what did you think of the March sisters initially, and did those opinions change as you learned more about how popular culture reacts to them?
Simone: Self-identifying with the characters is such a huge part of this book.
Jenna: Isn’t this the original Sex and the City?
Simone: I obviously, like most people, liked Jo the best —
Jenna: Raise your hands if you liked Jo best.
[Simone and Jenna raise their hands, Petrana kinda does, Emily does not. Karen abstains.]
Petrana: I was tied with Beth.
Emily: I really identified with Meg.
Jenna: I assumed it would be straight Jos!
Simone: I haven’t seen the new movie yet, but Greta Gerwig apparently all portrays them as heroes in their own right, which is shocking, because the scene we probably all remember most strongly is when Amy burns Jo’s writing. So I disliked Amy a lot!
Petrana: My mom always said I had a temper like Jo, but I was very shy and quiet like Beth at home. So those were the characters I “kinned,” so to speak. Jo had a courage that I definitely did not have growing up, which is why, as the quiet one who didn’t like to leave home, I felt more comfortable saying Beth was my favorite. But I was the writer who got angry with my sisters.
Karen: Petrana, I recall you mentioning that critical writing on Little Women tends to put the sisters into roles they’re not necessarily in, which we talked about after seeing the movie.
Petrana: There’s a whole argument about Meg in particular. Some critics say Meg is a failure of Alcott’s ideal of womanhood. But another camp says Alcott never paints Meg in a bad light. She’s loved by Jo and her family, and just because she’s portrayed as a different type of woman doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.
Karen: When did you first encounter that criticism, and did it affect your view of the characters at all?
Petrana: I don’t know that I can pinpoint a moment, but I just remember I liked all of the sisters growing up, and then people would be like, “Meg is boring,” or “Beth is boring,” just because Jo had the most “exciting” storyline. They were all interesting characters in their own right. It doesn’t feel right to paint the others as boring.
Emily: This is a good segue, because as someone who feels boring a lot of the time, I identified with Meg specifically in the scene where they’re going to the ball and Meg just wants to have a good time. But there’s that pressure of having to be a good role model because she’s a big sister. I’m a big sister, and I definitely felt that. Meg feels ashamed for wanting to enjoy herself, and I felt the same way growing up. I felt like enjoying traditionally feminine things made me a less interesting person, but that’s not the case.
Jenna: I actually love that about Meg, and I feel like that’s why her story doesn’t age well. It’s an endorsement of a very traditional kind of femininity, the housewife role. That’s interesting from a modern standpoint because it’s something people think feminism is against, but that’s not true. It’s interesting that Meg is the actress, and that she lived and portrayed other lives, but chooses the most traditional and arguably most accepted life for that time period.
Emily: Something I really liked about Gerwig’s adaptation is when Jo tells Meg she should go be an actress on Broadway, and Meg says, “That’s not what I want.” She explicitly says that’s not her dream. She’s not giving something up; she’s getting what she wants.
Jenna: I want to talk about Beth, because I don’t think she gets as much character development in Gerwig’s adaptation as she does in the book or in previous adaptations.
Karen: I think her character just serves a different narrative purpose. I think that’s what Petrana was getting at earlier: Beth is the shy and reserved one, and as a result isn’t as dynamic on screen. She doesn’t really do anything with her life in the same way her siblings do: Jo has a career as an author, Meg gets married and has a family, Amy also gets married. Beth doesn’t do any of that, but her life still holds importance, which is the moral of Gerwig’s version. All these women decide to do different things with their lives, and they’re all valid. And all her scenes with Laurie’s grandfather, played by Chris Cooper, are really touching.
Jenna: I thought Chris Cooper was exceptional. He doesn’t have a lot of lines or screen time, but every moment is so impeccable and devastating. I really loved his performance.
Karen: He is so freaking good in this movie.
Petrana: In every adaptation of Little Women, the scene when Beth gets the piano and then has the courage to say thank you is just so endearing.
Karen: When she gives him the slippers she made for him … I cried during every scene with her and Chris Cooper. He’s daddy.
Jenna: I thought Beth’s strength in the book is her relationship to the other sisters, and I thought that didn’t get well-developed, which is why she faded a bit in this movie for me. Her death still hit me hard, but I’m curious how that hit for people who aren’t familiar with the franchise.
Simone: The franchise. The Little Women Cinematic Universe.
Petrana: I think it’s gone beyond cinematic, though.
Jenna: Cannot be restrained.
Karen: I agree that it doesn’t feel sad in the sense of, like, “Oh, her relationship with her sisters is now gone.” It doesn’t feel like something that’s grounded in how strong the relationship with her family is. It’s sad in the way it usually is when someone passes away. It’s just never not going to be affecting.
Jenna: Also it’s removed from a standard timeline, because it’s all flashbacks and flash-forwards. Beth’s death feels less like a catalyzing moment in their lives, the way it does in the books. It’s more like a moment in their lives, for better or for worse.
Emily: Which is how deaths feel in our own lives, eventually, right? It eventually just becomes a moment in your story.
Jenna: My argument would be yes in real life, but in the narrative structure of Little Women, it’s a catalyzing moment that changes the momentum of their lives. It does feel more real that this is something that happens and they all learn to move on from it, but from a narrative standpoint, it makes some of the character trajectories less strong.
Emily: I think the scenes with Jo and Beth on the beach are more moving to me than her death scenes because Beth has agency in the conversation segments. She’s talking about what she wants, which is a larger theme of this movie.
Jenna: The scenes on the beach are some of the most beautiful, in how they’re staged and shot, but also in content.
Emily: And having those in direct juxtaposition with the happy scenes on the beach, when they’re there with Laurie.
Karen: What do you make of the performances in the new movie?
Jenna: We have to talk about Florence Pugh. She’s great as older Amy, but when she’s supposed to be 12 years old, and she has an adult’s face and body and voice — that was so disruptive. I was like, “Oh, this is a woman in her 20s making a cast of her foot to give a teenage boy, and that’s weird and gross.” She doesn’t feel like a child. In the ’90s adaptation, she’s the only one who’s played by two people, because she’s supposed to be very young, and later, older and grown up.
Emily: I prefer having the same actress, because I think it’s jarring when there’s only one character that’s recast, but I agree that it’s weird that it’s a woman in her 20s playing a tween.
Jenna: I think there are some adult women who can play both, but Florence is demonstrably not that. Her voice is so deep. As a casting choice, it is baffling to me.
Karen: Would you feel the same way if you didn’t know she was supposed to be a child?
Jenna: I think that’s differently weird and gross, because her behavior — especially the scene where she burns Jo’s writing — if you’re a 12-year-old, it’s still terrible, but you’re just a child. What’s the youngest we think Florence could play?
Jenna: That’s generous. But having her be older, it makes it less believable to me when Jo forgives her later.
Karen: I was fine with all of that. Fifteen-year-olds can still be that petty. That seems fair to me. I didn’t know she was supposed to be 12, but her behavior didn’t seem out of bounds for a teenager.
Emily: I think Florence did a good of changing up her mannerisms, and the costumer did a good job of dressing her like a child. And I think if her voice wasn’t so husky and deep, it would be less jarring, because she’s a talented actress, and there’s a noted difference in her behavior when she’s playing Amy as an adult vs. as a child.
Jenna: I don’t think it’s Florence’s fault. It’s a fundamentally poor casting choice. Her performance as adult Amy was really good, and that’s one of the stronger parts of the movie. As we’ve noted, Amy has critics. But a lot of the critiques of Amy would not hold up to this movie, because she has a practical approach to marriage, and she makes her argument well.
Simone: I was shocked when I saw the casting and realized Florence was playing Amy, and Eliza Scanlen wasn’t. Because that’s how I thought that would go.
Petrana: Emma Stone was originally Meg. The first two actresses cast were Emma Stone and Saoirse Ronan, and I actually I thought that would be Jo and Amy. Then they switched to Emma Watson.
Jenna: I am curious what you thought about Saoirse’s performance.
Karen: I thought she was good, but I felt, “Oh, whoa, Jo’s really annoying.” I didn’t really like Jo in this movie.
Petrana: Which I think was pretty brilliant, because everyone latches onto Jo. I like that this movie took her down a notch. It did a good job of evening out everyone’s narratives.
Simone: That brings me to something else that came up when I was listening to the Spouter-Inn episode on Little Women. One of the things they talked about was anger as a theme of the book — and in particular, Jo’s anger, and that scene where her mother says she used to be angry too, and that part of being a woman is learning to not show her anger to the world. That was surprising, because a lot of those elements of it as a 19th-century book for young women flew over my head. Do they address those themes of repressing anger in Gerwig’s adaptation?
Karen: The scene where Jo and her mother talk about handling their anger is pretty much directly adapted in the movie.
Simone: How does it come off?
Karen: Good. Laura Dern plays the mother, and she is radiant, divine. Except for the one scene where she talks to the one black character in the movie and is like, “I’m so woke.”
Karen: That scene is so bad! The character she’s addressing doesn’t respond, and doesn’t have any lines.
Jenna: The question is, “Do you just have to address this because it’s a Civil War story?” There were parts of this movie that felt like they had been updated to reflect a modern sensibility, and that was one of them. It didn’t feel in line with a lot of the other themes of the movie, but it was there, and it made sense from a “this is a 2019 telling of Little Women, so we have to talk about this” perspective.
Petrana: Alcott’s family were abolitionists who housed fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, but that’s not one of the themes that made it into the text, and not a lesson people wanted to instill in young women.
Jenna: Besides repressing your anger, what lessons did they want to instill?
Emily: That you have to get married.
Karen: Which brings us to the end of the movie. What did you guys make of it?
Petrana: I’m just going to point-blank say that I think the ending was saying that Jo published her book and didn’t get married. And that vindicated the ending Alcott actually wanted for Jo.
Jenna: I agree. I appreciated the meta-commentary and acknowledgement of “this is what this book had to be.” Does it have to be what we adapt in 2019, though? I really appreciated that commentary on adaptations, and Gerwig handled it really well. Some things you have to take, and some things you have to leave behind.
Emily: I also think it’s interesting that it’s left up to interpretation, because I’ve heard people say they think she does both — she gets married, publishes her book, and opens the school. But that’s not how I interpret it at all in the movie. I interpreted it as a choice she had to make, and we don’t get to know.
Jenna: Do you think it matters what she chose?
Emily: I think one of the big themes of this movie is that there isn’t a “correct” choice to make for your life. I think the ending suggests Jo can have a happy ending whatever way she chooses.
Petrana: So it’s what the viewer wants her fulfilling life to be. We’re modern women: You can have your cake and eat it too.
Jenna: You have to publish a book and run a school both, because you can’t support yourself on just one salary.
Emily: We have to talk about the ships. I think you learn a lot about a person based on whether they want Jo to end up with Laurie or Professor Bhaer.
Karen: Gabriel Byrne as Bhaer, hot.
Simone: I don’t even know who Professor Bhaer is, because I never read the Good Wives half. Are you judging me because I think Jo and Laurie should have been together simply because I was never introduced to Professor Bhaer?
Jenna: I don’t care for the professor.
Karen and Emily: [scream]
Jenna: Here’s the thing: Gabriel Byrne, love, kiss, love, and I did love Louis Garrel, very good, handsome, love him. But I did not love his character in this one, either. Bhaer in the 2019 version is very “this is the truth and you have to deal with it; don’t get so emotional,” and I can’t believe that didn’t get updated.
Petrana: It felt very mansplain-y. He was the guy in your MFA, and he’s not even a writer. He’s a philosophy professor. What does he know about fiction writing?
Jenna: And he’s so unsympathetic to the fact that Jo is trying to make a living on genre fiction, which is another thing in 2019 that I want us to be done hassling people about, because genre fiction is good, and if that’s what you need to sell to make your livelihood, do it. The book seems to suggest that if she’d stuck with it, she wouldn’t have written Little Women, this beautiful piece of art. But what if she had, and had also written a bunch of cool pirate stories?
Simone: He sounds terrible! I’m vindicated!
Jenna: He is terrible, Simone. In 2019, he’s not fine.
Petrana: The thing about Little Women as a book is that Alcott’s publisher knew she was writing these genre stories and was like, “Let’s write a book for girls,” and Alcott kept delaying it because she didn’t want to.
Jenna: Especially in this era, when a lot of really famous genre fiction that we still read and love today was written ... why not? Why not Louisa May Alcott’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?
Karen: My only contribution to this is that Louis Garrel is a Woody Allen apologist. And Gabriel Byrne —
Karen: — is not.
Emily: Gabriel Byrne is perfect. His mother read him Little Women as a child.
Petrana: Shall we address the Timothée Chalamet in the room?
Karen: Laurie sucks. He’s a fuckboy. We all know it. We didn’t have the word for it until recently, but he is a fuckboy.
Emily: So, perfect casting. I don’t understand Chalamet’s appeal, I don’t, I’m sorry.
Jenna: I’m the same way. My thought was, “This is for somebody, but it’s not for me.” He’s not believable as a charming, naïve, genuine youngster.
Petrana: He does do partying, self-deprecating, going-on-a-spiral-in-Europe Laurie well.
Jenna: Fuckboy Laurie, he nails. But I don’t think he’s believable in both roles, much like I don’t think Florence is believable in both roles.
Simone: How do you feel about Laurie and Amy ending up together, in the movie and in the book?
Jenna: In the movie, I think it works. I love both of them as the adult versions of themselves, and I believe their relationship more than in other versions. But I always pictured their marriage as a bittersweet compromise.
Simone: That’s hot.
Jenna: And because I haven’t reread or rewatched the ’90s version in a while, I don’t know if that’s in the text, or if that’s me projecting weirdly. It seemed like neither of them were really getting what they wanted, but it was enough.
Emily: I thought it was a compromise for Amy in a different way, in that she was marrying someone very wealthy, but also someone she had genuine affection for, even if she wasn’t in love with him.
Simone: That relationship is one of the holdovers of this book being of its era, in that it wouldn’t be a happy ending for us now. But Amy does get what she wants, and they’re both ... fine. So, for a woman in the 18-whatevers, that’s aces — you did great!
Jenna: This movie does a good job of going, “No, actually this is good for both of them.” Laurie is presumably sober, and Amy can paint and do what she genuinely wants to do, and they love each other. It felt like a happier ending in this one, which I liked. All of the little women should be happy.